Interview with an Expert: Having Awkward Conversations Related to COVID-19

In the past few weeks, we’ve received a lot of questions about how to navigate difficult conversations about COVID-19, and how to stay physically distant from those outside of your household while minimizing any related tension or conflict that may arise from those situations. To address your questions, we’ve asked Dr. Maggie Pitts to share her thoughts. Her perspective and expertise are invaluable, especially within the context of handling awkward or difficult conversations during this time of societal transition. 

Q: Do you have any advice for how to handle difficult conversations about COVID-19? 

What I try to do is to start with an empathic, other-centered approach. It helps me to frame these conversations as opportunities for “curiosity and compassion” – I am curious about what my conversation partner believes or feels and I can show compassion for their experiences/beliefs even if they don’t match my own. I try to consider the perspective of my conversational partner and where that comes from. I might start by acknowledging this is a difficult conversation occurring in the midst of a global crisis that has affected all of us in ways that we can’t yet appreciate or understand. Knowing that this has deeply, and unequally, affected everyone gives me a sense of compassion. I might then ask open questions to understand the other’s perspective – “how are you handling the pandemic?” “what’s hard for you?” I try to listen with curiosity. I’ve also asked people if they’ve noticed increased experiences of gratitude or new opportunities to enjoy and notice. When you ask people what good they’ve noticed… they often tell you!

Q: How might these communication strategies differ whenever you’re talking to those that you live with? 

I live in a very small house with 6 members of 3 generations. I share a long history with each member in my household, and yet, we don’t all agree about the science, the impact, the recommendations, or the policies/laws (and lack thereof) related to Covid-19. We argue. We get emotionally overwhelmed. We’re frustrated and feeling “caged in.” And, we allow for that. We try to listen generously. I also sometimes ask for a “Covid break” when I or someone else has stepped out of line. We use it like calling “time out” or “base” in a kid’s game of tag. It changes the interaction and usually makes us laugh. With my children especially, I sort of narrate what is happening and why – I am crying because I feel sad for people who are grieving. I yelled because I am also frustrated and bored and disappointed, but I am also sorry and it was not the best way for me to share my feelings. I try to honor where people are in their “pandemic cycle” – sometimes we feel grateful for what we have, sometimes we feel grief for what we’ve lost or are missing, sometimes we are scared, sometimes we are angry, most of the time we’re totally uncertain. People in a constant state of information overload, uncertainty, and social and/or economic distress need a bit more compassion and generosity extended to them for their behaviors. Be willing to ask for forgiveness and be willing to offer it.

Q: How might these communication strategies differ whenever you’re talking to those who invite you to a social gathering that you are uncomfortable attending?

My answer is guided by cultural norms for fairly direct communication within most of my social circles. I try to show ownership over my feelings and my beliefs in a way that doesn’t discount others, but also with humor directed at myself. In other words, I say things like, “I’m pretty freaked out about this virus and I want to protect myself and my family, so we’re still hunkering down at home with masks and a bottle of hand sanitizer. It’s really hard, because I know you want to see us. It’s hard on us, too. But, I know that once I start venturing out again it will be hard to stop, so for me, it’s easier to stay safe at home. Can we set up a phone call or ZOOM?”

Q: How might these communication strategies differ whenever you’re talking to those who may not agree with you about the severity of the virus, the suggested safety guidelines, and the government’s response to COVID-19?

In these situations, I often feel that I am being stereotyped and placed into a group to which I may or may not belong. I don’t like that feeling, so when I find myself in these situations, I try very hard not to make group-based statements about others. I also try to work against group-based statements (political, religious, age). When I hear disparaging comments about members of an age group, for example, I let people know that makes me feel uncomfortable or I advocate for the group. I really do have to start with my “curiosity and compassion” frame when I find myself in these conversations. I might not even realize until I feel my heart pounding that I am in one. I try to stick with phrases like, “here is what I believe right now and this is why it is important to me.” 

I also remind people that information is changing so quickly, that I find myself changing perspectives and even actions that seem inconsistent with my earlier actions. I tell people that since we are getting new information daily, I haven’t committed to one feeling yet – I’m pretty much feeling them all. It allows me the flexibility to not be committed to one belief or action. I also try to only speak on my account (e.g., “my feelings right now are…”). I also try to keep in mind that the person I am speaking with might feel differently later, and that is okay, and that person is somewhere on her/his own pandemic cycle and that influences how they feel (and communicate) in the moment. When it gets more difficult I think (and sometimes say) that I don’t have influence over other’s behaviors or beliefs, but I do over mine. Then sometimes I say it out loud – “I see it makes you uncomfortable that I am wearing a face cover in my own house, but I do it because I believe it protects you, plus, I am practicing getting used to it.”

Q: How might these communication strategies differ whenever you’re talking to an employer who is asking you to perform your job in a way that you are not comfortable with?

I feel the most confident in this scenario, but I recognize that I have a very privileged position where I know there are people who will advocate for me. I voice my concerns with an immediate supervisor and approach it like an opportunity to solve a problem. This is more difficult where there are big power hierarchies and vulnerable employees. My advice is to approach with an observation, “I noticed that…” and then how that makes you feel “and I am worried about…” while also recognizing the awkward position you are in “this is really hard to talk about (or this feels really awkward to me) but I wanted to talk with you about a possible solution.” There is often more than one person you can go to. If you cannot go to your immediate supervisor, can you go to theirs’? Can you go to an advocate (like Human Resources) in your organization? Can you go to an Ombudsperson? It is an act of bravery to advocate for yourself and often in the process you advocate for others as well. Communication can be an act of courage for yourself and others.

Dr. Maggie Pitts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Associate Dean at the Graduate College at the University of Arizona. Her program of research centers on the types of everyday talk people use to manage transitions across the life course (such as health decision-making, end-of-life and later life conversations, retirement, international sojourning, etc.). Dr. Pitts takes a “bright side” approach to the study of human communication — asking questions like, “what is going right” here, and “how can we make good things even better?” Recently, Dr. Pitts is interested in studying communication “savoring,” or focusing on meaningful communication moments, and then purposefully enjoying and enhancing them. Dr. Pitts and her research team are currently exploring communication savoring in the context of COVID-19. If you are interested to find out more about her research on savoring communication, listen to her podcast interview on Constant Wonder.

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